Deliver Us From Irony

Well there’s lots about irony (directly and indirectly) in the latest milestone:

He doesn’t know there’s an abstract distance in the look that makes it seem like he’s studying a real bitch of a 7-iron on the tenth rough or something; the look doesn’t communicate what he thinks his audience wants it to. (365)

Speakers who are accustomed to figuring out what an audience wants to hear and then supplying it find out quickly that this particular audience does not want to be supplied with what someone else thinks it wants. (368)

The prior two quotes I guess I’d call indirectly pertinent to irony, insofar as they deal with friction between what seems and what is and the willful deployment of a seem for an is. These quotes aren’t really classic irony, but the mechanics seem sort of the same to me, and the quotes are certainly related to one another.

Dealing a bit more directly with irony:

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. (369)

And a little later, Wallace describes the Canadian students at ETA huddled together at the Interdependence Day dinner:

This American penchant for absolution via irony is foreign to them. (385)

Compare to Gately’s chatter about listening vs. hearing, really engaging and hearing not only what the person you’re listening to is saying but listening to (or hearing) what they mean, how their experience bears on and enriches your own. This is real engagement vs. showiness or something rather like self-puppetry.

It’s no coincidence that when we get to Lyle, we learn this:

But it’s the way he listens, somehow, that keeps the saunas full. (387)

I’m not going to write a lot of stuff synthesizing it all, but I will leave you with a few (lengthy; sorry, it’s just too good not to quote at length) goodies from Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction (which by the way, you’ve heard that phrase before in IJ, haven’t you?).

I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time, they are agents of a great despair and stasis in our U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems (49 — from the collection  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

As Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. (67)

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionallized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to inderdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself. (67)

Of possible interest, particularly with this last bit in mind, is a quote from page 38 of the same book in which Wallace gives what he calls a “commonsensical” definition of malignant addiction:

[TV] may become malignantly addictive only once a certain threshold of quantity is habitually passed, but then the same is true of Wild Turkey. And by “malignant” and “addictive” I again to not mean evil or hypnotizing. An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to is lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problesm for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problem it causes.

3 thoughts on “Deliver Us From Irony

  1. infinitedetox July 30, 2009 / 6:41 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the irony issues raised in the AA section too. It’s got to be a real bitch to write in a literary fashion about material that’s so explicitly sincere and un-ironic. I mean, irony is one of those foundational literary devices — how do you craft “literature” out of a subject that’s so hostile to so many literary techniques? I think Wallace is doing a pretty darn good job of it, but one of the things that struck me about the AA-section is that it seemed somehow less symbolically-rich than the ETA or Steeply/Marathe sections. Which, of course, is not at all a bad thing.

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